The axing of the Northern leg of HS2 raises some serious questions for the future of rail within the UK. Whilst HS2 was primarily planned to benefit passengers the perceived benefits of rail to reduce road congestion and lower emissions equally apply to road freight. This particularly applies to the use of rail as an alternative for long distance trunking operations. Whilst battery power is viable for vans and small commercial vehicles their application for tractors and trailers is highly questionable. Hydrogen might be a possibility but there are still many obstacles to overcome; particularly production and distribution. Compared with road and air, rail offers lower energy and reduced emissions per tonne once a critical load size has been reached.
The decision not to progress the Northern leg of HS2 was primarily based on an unaffordable and escalating cost so where does that leave the use of rail for freight in the drive to reduce climate change?
Rail freight within the UK accounts for less than 10% of freight movements. Whilst freight movements were given a boost following the opening of the Channel Tunnel the tonnage moved by rail has continued to decline. Even traffic through the tunnel has declined from a peak of 3 million tonnes in 1998 to 1.1 million tonnes in 2020. Indeed, projected freight movements used to help justify the construction of the Channel Tunnel have never come close to the planning assumptions that were used within the financial case.
The reasons1 cited for reduced volumes are many and varied and include the following: -
- Insufficient aggregation of volumes
- Imbalance of trade between the EU and the UK
- Delays in upgrading loading gauge to take the largest shipping containers & swap bodies
- Wagon availability
- Terminal capacity
- Weight restrictions on HS1
- Delays caused by security checks at Calais
- Access of freight trains to high-speed passenger lines
- Obtaining through routes through different networks in the EU
(1) Report by Network Rail February 2023
The economic justification for rail has always been restricted to longer journeys because of the cost of moving freight from road to rail and then back again. This includes potentially viable routes from Eastern & Southern Europe, Turkey and from ports to inland freight terminals. All however require investment in terminals, wagons and locomotives and a willingness of the various authorities to enable the smooth movement of trains across borders.
For UK only operations, the number of routes that can be justified on the grounds of cost are extremely limited. Clearly, the UK should continue to work with European operators to use rail for inter country and intercontinental movements but rail is unlikely to have any significant impact on UK freight movements.
So where do we go with regards to UK freight movements. What more can be done in addition to seeking alternatives to hydrocarbons.
The obvious answer is to push ahead with road trains; two semi-trailers attached to a single tractor unit. Also to be progressed is the convoying of trucks on motorways in order to reduce fuel costs. Both require investment in terminals close to Motorways and the investment in vehicle technology. Given the use of tractors and trailers on motorways and major trunk roads the opportunity is considerable and significantly less expensive than building new railway lines.
Investing in the rail network carried the hope that it could make a useful contribution to controlling climate change by reducing emissions from aircraft and road vehicles. Ignoring the argument that building HS2 is itself highly polluting, clearly any development that enables people and freight to be moved more efficiently has to be seen as beneficial in reducing emissions and costs. Unfortunately, the cost of building and the inherent problems of accessing the network for anything other than long journeys rules it out as a significant contributor for reducing emissions for domestic freight. Until these problems are solved the answer is to seek to make road freight less polluting and more efficient.